“I heard her voice, dry as my own, thin, high, and in her nose, with the old outdoors and down the mountain sound to it,” wrote Woody Guthrie in 1947. “Singing to us as she had sung into the rifle fire of Sheriff Blair’s deputies, Sarah Ogan got the house of people to keep so still that the cat licking his hair sounded like a broomstick rubbed against a washtub.” Sarah Ogan Gunning was the daughter and wife (and, no surprise, widow) of coal miners from Kentucky. She first gained fame as a singer-songwriter and activist for mine workers’ rights in the 1930s. Templates for the work of Loretta Lynn, if not of P J Harvey, Gunning’s most popular songs included “I Am a Girl of Constant Sorrow” (a feminized take on the standard), “I Hate the Company Bosses” (also known as “I Hate the Capitalist System”), and an a capella rendition of a dirge appropriately titled “O Death.”
The last of these,
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